In Colombia, after the President, the second most important political post is the minister of defense.
In late July, a new minister of defense, Gabriel Silva, was chosen following the resignation of Juan Manuel Santos who left the post to become a possible presidential candidate.
At first glance, the former Colombian ambassador to the U.S. (1993), head of the influential National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers and socialite, Silva is not the most obvious choice for a job that traditionally has required a belligerent style.
But Silva is a wise choice to oversee Colombia’s armed forces. And if anyone can improve the battered image of Colombia’s military machine following a string of high-profile and damaging human rights scandals, it is Silva.
During his six-year tenure as head of the country’s important Coffee Growers Federation, Silva was seen as a savior-like figure for turning around the fortunes of Colombia’s some 600,000 coffee growers and promoting the country’s leading export, coffee.
A long-term strategist, Silva was credited with transforming the bureaucratic and inefficient Federation by implementing tough internal reforms, downsizing and pushing thorough financial restructuring, which increased coffee production and profits for small and medium-sized coffee farmers.
He proved adept in securing central government funds that provided subsidies to coffee growers, which ensured farmers were less vulnerable to fluctuating coffee prices. Silva was also pivotal in making Colombian coffee a household name through the successful Juan Valdez brand.
Silva’s experience is exactly what Colombia’s armed forces direly need. The military requires a rebranding following the so-called “false positives” scandals. The grisly affair has implicated hundreds of army officers involved in the murders of innocent civilians, who were then passed off as rebels killed in battle to up the army’s body count.
With his renowned managerial skills, Silva is also probably the best person to make Colombia’s armed forces more transparent and accountable and tackle the entrenched flaws in the military’s chain and command structures that have played a part in allowing widespread human right violations to take place.
But so far, Silva has not made any positive overtures to human rights defenders or to the families whose sons have been killed by state agents. The first thing Silva did as the newly appointed defense minister was to publicly defend the honor and heroism of the country’s armed forces and promise them access to good lawyers. But the pressure is also on Silva to show progress made in tackling human rights violations in the military as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders visits Colombia this week.
There are, however, diplomatic issues that may prove even more daunting. Silva’s first weeks on the job came at a time when the thorny issue of the new U.S.-Colombian military deal, which aims to allow the U.S. almost unrestricted access to seven of Colombia’s military bases, started to cause serious diplomatic tensions between Colombia and its neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador. Silva has so far taken a low-profile role and damage control has been largely left to President Uribe and the media-savvy foreign minister, Jaime Bermúdez.
At the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting two weeks ago in Argentina, Uribe reiterated that the U.S-Colombian military deal will not change the cap of 800 U.S military personnel allowed to work in Colombia on anti-narcotics and insurgency operations.
But such assurances did not convince leaders from Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia that the U.S. is not using Colombia’s military bases as a blatant geopolitical tool and strategy that goes far beyond the so-called war on drugs and terrorism. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demanded the deal include legal guarantees to ensure that the sovereignty of other countries in Latin America will not be affected. As Colombia defended the bilateral military deal against a barrage of criticisms and concerns from regional leaders, it looked increasingly isolated in the region.
Moreover, like most Colombian officials, Silva would have appreciated a helping hand from the U.S. to ease fears about increased U.S. military presence in Colombia. Bogotá feels it was left alone to defend the bilateral military deal without the support of Washington. It was mid-August when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally met with Foreign Minister Bermúdez in Washington to officially go on the record about the final terms of the deal. That was several weeks after serious rifts over the deal between Colombia and its neighbors had already emerged.
Finally, whether U.S. troops will receive diplomatic immunity if they were to commit crimes in Colombia is another thorny issue Silva will have to sort out before the deal is signed. Even as he labors ahead to rebrand Colombia’s military, Silva faces difficult months ahead.
*Anastasia Moloney is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.